The Golden Rule

Comments on the last post made me once again recall what I consider to be the most important passage in all of Gygax's writings on D&D. I use the following as my "golden rule" when thinking about game design for D&D:

ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity. This is not to say that where it does not interfere with the flow of the game that the highest degree of realism hasn't been attempted, but neither is a serious approach to play discouraged.

- DMG p. 9: "The Game: Approaches to Playing Dungeons & Dragons"

Now, in the interest of being as clear as possible, allow me to unpack the latter two clauses and clean up the double negatives. If we do so, we read this:

(1) The highest degree of realism has been attempted (so long as it does not interfere with the flow of the game).

Again, the double-negatives make the passage slightly hard to parse on first viewing. In fact, we do seek the highest degree of realism -- claims that D&D has "never been realistic in any way" are totally false. Purely abstract systems are not of interest to us. However, if a conflict arises, then what must take precedence? Definitely, the flow of the game. Both elegant gamesmanship and realistic modelling, working in synergy, are the zenith of game design; but if those goals come into conflict, then gamesmanship must clearly, (narrowly) win out.

(2) A serious approach to play is encouraged.

We can allow ourselves to be serious about our gaming. Critiques that "you're thinking too hard about fantasy" can generally be ignored as meaningless. And at the same time, if some of our friends are most interested in the fantastical or even comical elements of our gaming, then that should be seriously respected, as well.


  1. "A narrowly winning out over B" is a pretty generous parsing of "A is first and foremost," and "B should not interfere with A," and "B is not discouraged."

  2. "Realism" versus "flow" sounds very similar to the "realism" versus "playability" debate that bedeviled the wargaming hobby for years. It was never resolved; the argument simply exhausted the combatants. Still, it is still a worthwhile conversation to have, even we come down differently with our conclusions. Unlike wargamers, each group of RPG players (including GM/DM/CK/Refs) are co-game designers and we shape the games, campaigns, and adventures we are playing. The more we learn from each other in this regard, the better our gaming experiences will be.

  3. Indeed. It's funny to me that so many folk have a difficult time with the notion that the game might be intentionally incomplete, and intentionally leave a balance point to be decided by the GM/players.

    I really believe an key part of the spirit of Gary's D&D was that 'rules' and 'rulings' were intentionally put into a balancing act. It gives a life to the game. It creates dialects between gaming groups. I see the statement you quoted as Gary saying: "Yeah, we are doing both. We are well-aware of it. Mix to your satisfaction."

    On a related note, this is why I hold the sometimes heretical opinion that NWPs don't necessarily lead to the erosion of role-playing. No doubt a complete NWP system can, but when you have no NWP system at all, you are always making one up on the fly (i.e. roll a d6). Some definition of NWPs can be better than none.

  4. Totally agree. And in the spirit of a serious approach, my golden rule includes:

    "The rules should support the campaign world/scenes to be created. Not the other way around."

    In other words. They should support the scenes from books, movies, etc. Such as Jaime Lannister losing his sword hand, or the fact that people are (rightfully) terrified of fire.

    The other aspect is the effect on the world as a whole. The fact that magic exists means that the world is different. Even something as simple as imprisoning a potential spell caster is different. You can't just put them in a jail cell and expect that they will stay there unless you do something to prevent them from using spells (bind and gag them at the very least).

    To a large degree it's a question of focus. Most games focus on gaining levels and abilities, and progress at an alarmingly rapid rate (like 1st to 15th level in a matter of game-world weeks or months). Our focus is on the characters and their stories. Even in superhero stories (comics or movies), the heroes aren't constantly gaining new abilities and powers, or getting stronger. They are just using the ones they already have.

    I think it's an influence of video games, and the idea that somehow caught on that what makes a game (especially a video game) an RPG is that you can gain experience and grow as a character.

    My current campaign took about 2 years (real time, meeting weekly) to get to 8th level, and in game time it was still a bit fast for my liking, putting them through a bit over a year.

    The second campaign I'm running is likely to get only to about 3rd level in that same time, which is much closer to how my old campaigns used to run.


    1. That's good. I'm playing in a DCC game at the moment that I think took a whole year to get PCs to 2nd level (playing around every other week). No one was complaining about that.